Broadcasting the War of Ideas

Transcript of remarks made by Seth Cropsey, Director, International Broadcasting Bureau

Oct 06, 2004

Thank you for that generous introduction and for inviting me here to talk about what we are doing now in U.S. international broadcasting as part of our involvement in the war on terrorism, and where we are heading in the future.

Sixty-two years ago, less than three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government organized the Voice of America to speak to Nazi-occupied Europe. The very first words broadcast by that station were "The news may be good, the news may be bad, but we will tell you the truth." They were spoken in German.

Ever since, America's international broadcasters have tried hard to live up to that commitment. We do not lie-—either to cover up mistakes or to promote policy. Instead, we as a people and as a government believe that truth—-accurate and carefully sourced-—is what we must offer.

If you think about it for a moment, this is quite remarkable. Any number of other governments and institutions engage in international broadcasting, but few of them make this kind of commitment to the truth. Why do we do so? Certainly not because we believe that the truth will always make us look good. Rather, it is that a commitment to the truth is a source of strength. First, it means people can say, "I heard—-or saw—-it on VOA and so it must be true." Second, the truth is a foundation of democratic governance. Speaking it publicly affirms for all the world to see liberal democracy's confidence that people in possession of facts and fortified by lively debate between competing ideas can make the best decisions about their own future.

Never has either of these two results-—of trying to tell the truth—-been as important as both are now. We are engaged today not in a clash of civilizations but rather in a war of ideas that pits civilization against barbarism: between those who value freedom and those who oppose it. Of the practical freedoms instituted to protect human rights, freedom of the press is first, and the enemies of all freedoms begin by attacking this one. As it did in the past, supporting media freedom around the world promotes our values and brings closer others' ability to enjoy them.

America's commitment to these values in international broadcasting were codified in the VOA Charter adoped by Congress in 1976 and signed into law by President Ford. This charter governs all U.S. government international broadcasters, and I am always impressed that our journalists know exactly what it says.

All our broadcasters can tell you that the Charter requires that we offer only accurate, balanced news; that we talk about our country to the world; and that we present American policy and balanced discussions of that policy-—including the views of those who dissent from it.

This approach works. Today, more than 130 million people listen, watch, or surf the web to get our programs. And we at the Broadcasting Board of Governors are committed to building on that success both by insisting that our broadcasters live up to that Congressional mandate and also by visiting on a regular basis the places we broadcast and listening to what our audiences have to say.

But if this commitment to journalistic integrity and to meeting the needs of our audience has not changed, America's international broadcasting effort is very different today than it was when it started more than a half century ago. Part of the reason is rooted in technology, but another part is in the even more dramatic transformation of the world over that same period.

When the United States launched its international broadcasting effort in 1942, there was only one way to reach an audience-—that was by shortwave radio broadcasts. We could put up the signal from U.S. territory and reach most of the world. Those we wanted to reach not only had shortwave receivers but saw them as the best or in many cases the only way to get news from abroad.

Over the last decades, all this has changed. Now, most of our audiences around the world have stopped turning to shortwave broadcasts. Many of them do not own shortwave radios any more. Instead, they prefer AM and FM radio, television and the Internet. These technologies, both alone and together, present very different challenges that are likely only to increase as more possibilities open around the world.

In most places, broadcasting on AM and FM radio and on television results in dependence on terrestrial transmitters near to our audience. This means either setting up stations, leasing them, or entering into various kinds of affiliate relations with local stations. Direct-to-home satellite radio and television broadcasting are beginning to matter in a few regions, a subject I shall return to, but for most of the world, those are still distant dreams far beyond the resources or expectation of our audiences. Meanwhile, we can—-and wherever practical, do—-put ever more programming out on the Internet, but lack of bandwidth or even access to the web are still major problems in many parts of the world.

This increasing diversity of delivery options also has an impact on programming itself. Television remains an appointment medium-—that is viewers choose to turn on the TV to get a particular program—-while radio has become a medium people listen to because of the kind of programming they can receive on a particular station. That means we have to think not only about a particular program, be it a news broadcast or something else, but about an entire broadcasting stream. These are the kind of challenges that we wrestle with all the time.

On the other hand, the need for affiliates on the ground means that we are subject to pressures that shortwave broadcasters never experienced. Local governments may try to influence affiliates, and the pressure on an affiliate can—-unless we are careful-—become pressure on us. Care, vigiliance, and experience prevent this, and we exercise them.

But it is the political changes in the world that have been the most revolutionary in their impact on broadcasting. As I noted earlier, when we began U.S. international broadcasting in 1942, we did so in German because it was critically important to communicate with people living under Nazism, providing them with news, information and hope.

A decade later, we were directing most of our broadcast effort to the peoples of the Soviet bloc, not only using the Voice of America but also the newly created stations Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Russian and the central European languages succeeded German as the most important language in U.S. international broadcasting during the Cold War. We were engaged in a struggle with the communist regime in Moscow, and it was important for us to give our audience:
* the accurate and balanced news that their system denied them;
* the information that empowered so many of them to act;
* and finally the hope that we were in a position to provide—-and that they needed to exploit—-to recover their freedom.

For more than 50 years, this was our basic agenda in U.S. international broadcasting. Everyone involved can be proud of what was accomplished. The Soviet bloc is no more, and communism is on the defensive even where-—as in Cuba, China and parts of Asia—-it still claims the right to rule on behalf of, rather than with the support of, the population under its control. In these places too, U.S. international broadcasting played and plays an important role: via Radio and TV Marti to Cuba and through Radio Free Asia to the Far East.

In short, U.S. international broadcasting has responded to the emerging challenges the U.S. has faced over the course of this period. Because we never realized the largesse enjoyed by other parts of the federal government engaged in protecting the nation, we have sometimes had to cut back in some areas in order to expand in others. The period since September 11 is a good example. Although the Cold War ended a decade earlier, it was in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that U.S. international broadcasting made the major break from its earlier profile.

During the 1990s, U.S. international broadcasting saw its funding reduced by 40 percent in real terms, and its personnel cut by a third. As a result, it went on the defensive, cutting broadcast hours and language services here and there. September 11 made it clear that such an approach was no longer possible. Instead, we needed to do three new things and to do them very quickly.


  • First, we had to redirect our efforts because the threat to the United States was coming from an entirely different direction than earlier challenges:
  • Second, we faced a challenge from non-state actors rather than from governments, something that complicated the task of defeating them but made our ability to communicate with the audience even more important than it had been earlier. States know how to deal with other states, but they have far more difficulty in dealing with populations, and especially with small groups who can, like al-Qaeda, visit so much horror over such vast distances.
  • And third, we had to launch tailored broadcasting for specific audiences, especially young people who now make up half of the populations in the Islamic world, and who in many cases have extremely negative views about the United States—-sometimes because of differences over U.S. policy but far more often because their images of America were the result of tendentious and dishonest broadcasts by their own national media.



I am proud to say that over the last three years, we have done just that. But even though we have received additional funding from Congress, we could not do what we are unless we had shifted resouces. That means cutting some services and reducing others, a process that is always painful and one none of us enjoys. But when I listen to some of the arguments against what we have done, I often find myself wondering whether these same people would want us to be broadcasting in German now precisely because we were so successful with it earlier.

I know that many of you have followed our work to build the first three parts of this effort: the highly successful Radio Sawa which has captured a major share of many of the major urban markets in the Arab Middle East; Radio Farda which reaches a large youth audience in Iran; and Al-Hurra, our satellite television effort directed at the Middle East and beyond. Instead of discussing these in detail I want to focus on our latest round of enhancements and plans to reach not only these audiences but the greater non-Arabic-speaking Muslim world as well.

In May, we launched a new Urdu-language service for Pakistan, one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, saddled with dangerous radicals and possessed of nuclear weapons. We now broadcast there 12 hours a day on medium wave. The service, called Aap ki Dunyaa – "Your World" in English – features a mix of news, roundtable discussions, and music, all of it designed to reach the most volatile group in the Pakistani population—-15 to 39 year olds—-a demographic group from which Islamist radicals have recruited terrorists. During September, Aap ki Dunyaa, among other things, interviewed Pakistani-American survivors of the 9/11 attacks, covered the 41st annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America in Chicago, and aired the opinions of prominent Pakistani-American clerics and community leaders in response to the Beslan school incident in southern Russia. These efforts are producing positive results.

The new service is already a success. Not only is it on affiliate stations in the major markets of that country, but it is reaching Urdu speakers in the neighboring countries of India and Afghanistan. Initial surveys suggest it is now one of the most popular stations in all three places. And listeners by letter, email and phone call have let us know that they like it, and want more. We are seeking additional funding to improve the quality of the signal, and increase the number of hours we broadcast. At the same time, we are studying the possibility of launching an Urdu television program.

We have increased our broadcasts to the Iraqi people, and are proud that we are part of the effort that overthrew Saddam Hussein. I am confident that our broadcasts in Arabic and Kurdish will help bring the insurgency there to an end, and create the conditions for a better life for all of Iraq's people. The barbarity of attacks on these poor people states eloquently the alternative if self-government does not succeed there. Accurate information, ideas, and peaceful debate are as critical to positive change as physical improvements. U.S. international broadcasting provides this intellectual infrastructure: it is the life blood of peaceful change.

I am pleased that our work is beginning to receive recognition. The 911 Commission report that was issued in July this year stated: "Recognizing that Arab and Muslim audiences rely on satellite television and radio, the (US) government has begun some promising initiatives in tv and radio broadcasting to the Arab world. The Broadcasting Board of Governors has asked for much larger resources. It should get them." It is hard to find fault with such impeccable logic.

Over the next year, we hope to increase our broadcasts of satellite television programs to Iran and Afghanistan as well and to increase the staff for our Persian Internet news operation. The Iranian government's mullahs operate four 24/7 international television operations: is our current half hour daily tv news program to Iran enough? We want to increase Dari and Pashto television broadcasts from the ground in Afghanistan from the current one-half hour a week to eight hours a day: if Iran is able to broadcast television into Afghanistan around the clock, shouldn't we be there with at least a third as much? We would also like to increase our radio and television broadcasts to Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, and to Nigeria, Somalia, and Uzbekistan, three countries where Islamic militancy has increased in recent years.

This new infrastructure, one that builds on our understanding of what radio and television are about in general, and for young people in the Muslim world in particular, means we are in a position to communicate news, information and ideas to people often very hostile to our country and its way of life.

Because this effort is so often misunderstood, I would like to take a minute to discuss it. As President George W. Bush has regularly reminded the world, the war against terrorism is not a clash of civilizations, instead it is an attack on civilization by barbarism. We are not at war with Islam even if some in the Islamic world would like to present the conflict in this light. But as the President has noted, those who challenge us today come from the Muslim world; thus, we must speak to Muslims about who and what we are. The challenge in short is to deal with a situation in which not all Muslims are terrorists but for today, at any rate, the greatest threat of terror comes from radical, fanatic Muslims.

As we have done with other adversaries in the past, we believe that accurate and balanced news not only works in our favor but empowers those who receive it. Such empowerment is a threat to the autocratic regimes in many parts of the Muslim world, and this again is why President Bush has talked about our efforts to assist in the region's democratization. U.S. international broadcasting is committed to this. We hope to explain not only our policies but more important, the idea of human rights and supporting a political system on which policies rest. We hope that by explaining both we will win over those now opposed to us, or at the very least, keep them from being recruited by those who continue to attack us.

The struggle against terrorism will be long and hard. I expect we will win it. But we will win it sooner if we take seriously the war of ideas; if we build on our successes reaching large Muslim audiences; if we succeed in launching a dialogue with those who might be tempted to support or turn to terrorism. Radio Sawa and Radio Farda are already doing this. Polls show that the audiences these stations have won are less inclined to believe lies about the United States spread by Islamist extremists and national broadcasters. And I believe that our international broadcasting elsewhere will be equally successful as well.

But what of the future? We have to begin to think even more broadly. Many of the people that the Islamist terrorists have been able to recruit do not come from the Middle East or South Asia, the traditional home of Islam but rather in Europe, Russia and the post-Soviet states, and in the fault line between Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. There are now more than 15 million Muslims in the countries of the European Union. There are more than 20 million in the Russian Federation-—indeed, Moscow is now the largest Muslim city in Eurasia by some accounts-—and twice that number in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The conflicts between Muslims and others in Sudan have touched the hearts of the world.

Ought we to begin thinking about reaching these communities too? I think so. How to do it, in what languages, and through what channels are all things to be discussed. I hope that many in this room will make a contribution to those discussions. It would certainly be an irony if the U.S. were again to begin broadcasting to central Europe as it did at the dawn of the Voice of America but this time to Muslims threatened by fundamentalism rather than to nations occupied by the Nazi menace.

Let me close by telling you about something I saw during a recent trip to the Balkans. I visited a 14th century Orthodox church where the eyes of the frescos had been gouged out. I asked my guide who had done this and why. He responded that the forces of the Ottoman Empire had gouged out the eyes both because of the Islamic prohibition against drawing the human figure and because of a desire to indicate symbolically that the Christian communities in the Balkans would not be able to see a future on their own.

My guide smiled when he added that while he couldn't do much about religious prohibitions, these actions against symbols of their faith had not prevented them from seeing a post-Ottoman future. More to the point, he said, the Ottomans had not destroyed the ears. They remain open.

I very much hope that we will always be ready to broadcast for all our audience to hear, and see—-especially as we work with others to rid the world of its current pestilence: terrorism.